Sally Ride (1951-2012) was an American astronaut and physicist who, in 1983, became the first American woman to travel to outer space. A natural polymath, she nearly pursued a career as a professional tennis player, and excelled at both physics and English literature at university. As a woman in a heavily male-dominated field, she became known for her witty retorts to sexist lines of questioning, and later championed women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Sally Ride’s life and work was so remarkable that after her death she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service.
So who was Sally Ride?
1. Her parents were church elders
Sally Ride was the eldest of two daughters born in Los Angeles to Dale Burdell Ride and Carol Joyce Ride. Her mother was a volunteer counsellor, while her father had served in the army and was later a political science professor. Both were elders in the Presbyterian Church. Her sister, Bear, followed in her parents footsteps, becoming a Presbyterian minister in 1978, the same year that Sally became an astronaut. Carol Joyce Ride joked of her daughters, ‘we’ll see who gets to heaven first.’
2. She was a tennis prodigy
In 1960, a then nine-year-old Sally played tennis in Spain for the first time on a family trip around Europe. By age 10, she was being coached by former world number one Alice Marble, and by 1963 she was ranked number 20 in Southern California for girls aged 12 and under. As a sophomore, she attended an exclusive private school on a tennis scholarship. Though she decided against pursuing tennis professionally, she later taught tennis and even played against Billie Jean King in a doubles match.
3. She studied physics and English literature at Stanford
Ride initially studied Shakespeare and quantum mechanics at the University of California, where she was the only woman majoring in physics. She successfully applied for a transfer to Stanford University as a junior, and graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature. She later earned a Master of Science degree in physics in 1975 and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1978.
4. She saw in a newspaper article that NASA were recruiting for astronauts
In 1977, Sally was planning on becoming a professor after finishing her PhD in physics at Stanford. However, while eating breakfast in the canteen one morning, she saw a newspaper article stating that NASA were looking for new astronauts, and that for the first time, women could apply. She applied, and after an extensive admission process, was admitted in 1978 as one of six women astronaut candidates. In 1979, she completed her NASA training, obtained a pilot’s license and became eligible to be sent to space on a mission.
5. She was asked sexist questions
When Sally was preparing for her spaceflight, she was the focus of a media frenzy. She was asked questions such as ‘Do you weep when things go wrong?’, to which she gestured to her crewmate Rick Hauck and asked, ‘Why don’t people ask Rick those questions?’ She was also asked, ‘will the flight affect your reproductive organs?’
She was also later quoted in an interview, ‘I remember the engineers trying to decide how many tampons should fly on a one-week flight… they asked, ‘Is 100 the right number?’ to which [I] replied, ‘No, that would not be the right number.’
6. She became the first American woman to fly in space
On 18 June 1983, 32-year-old Ride became the first American woman in space while aboard the shuttle orbiter Challenger. Many attending the launch wore T-shirts that read ‘Ride, Sally Ride’. The mission lasted 6 days, and Ride was tasked with operating the robotic arm to help carry out a number of experiments. Her second space mission, in October 1984, also included her childhood friend Kathryn Sullivan, who became the first American woman to walk in space. Ride was also the youngest American astronaut to have flown in space.
7. She taught at the University of California
In 1987, Ride stopped working for NASA and took up a teaching post at the University of California. In 1989, she was made a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute, the latter which she served as until 1996. She retired from the University of California in 2007.
8. She was passionate about children’s education
In 1984 after Ride’s first spaceflight, she appeared on Sesame Street. Though a private person, she was motivated to appear on the show as she wanted to inspire other young people to take an interest in her area of work. She also wrote a number of science books aimed at young readers, with one, ‘The Third Planet: Exploring the Earth from Space’ winning the prestigious Children’s Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics in 1995. She was particularly passionate about encouraging girls and women into STEM-related fields.
9. She was the world’s first LGBTQ+ astronaut
Ride’s lifelong partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, had been a childhood friend of hers. They became good friends and eventually lifelong partners for 27 years until Ride’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2012. Whilst their relationship was only first revealed during Ride’s obituary, Ride was still the world’s first LGBTQ+ astronaut.
10. She posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom
In 2013, then US President Obama posthumously honoured Ride with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He said, ‘As the first American woman in space, Sally did not just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it,’ Obama said. ‘And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering.’